One of the nation's most powerful unions has been ordered to pay millions of dollars to a Texas janitorial company for its three-year smear campaign aimed at organizing the workforce.
A jury ordered Service Employees International Union Local 5 (SEIU) to pay Professional Janitorial Services (PJS) $5.3 million for making false claims about the company in an effort to rally support from the local community and workers. Local 5, which was formed by organizers from Chicago's SEIU Local 1, waged a three-year organizing campaign to pressure the Houston-based company to approve card check unionization.
When PJS failed to bow to these demands—as four other janitorial companies did—organizers began filing unfair labor practice complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), questioning the company’s business practices.
All 19 of these complaints were dismissed by the NLRB, the federal government’s top labor arbiter, or withdrawn by the union. Those unfounded complaints became the centerpiece of pamphlets and other union materials distributed to the public.
The company filed the suit against the union in 2007, but the trial did not take place until 2016 due to the SEIU’s legal delays. The suit alleged that the union’s use of NLRB complaints, as well as its public statements about the way PJS treated its 1,000 employees constituted defamation. The verdict came after a four-week trial, in which jurors heard from numerous labor organizers and attorneys about the union’s tactics for organizing the workforce.
"The jury found what PJS and its employees have known for more than a decade, which is that the SEIU is a corrupt organization that is rotten to its core," PJS CEO Brent Southwell said in a release.
Southwell does not intend to let the jury verdict be the final chapter in his fight against SEIU. As the case sat in court he formed the Texas Business Coalition, an association of employers dedicated to combating union pressure campaigns. The group is pushing lawmakers to pass legislation that would end automatic dues deductions for public employees—a measure similar to the labor reforms passed by Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Southwell is also asking local district attorneys to pursue perjury cases against union officials he claims lied on the stand during his civil suit.
"The next step is to ensure the union is removed from Texas and sent packing back to Chicago," Southwell said in the release.
Update 1:20 p.m.: A previous version of this story identified the union ordered to pay PJS $5.3 million as SEIU Local 1. The union ordered to make payment is SEIU Local 5.
Following publication, SEIU Local 5 called the verdict "an assault on fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment" in a statement.
"A broad coalition of business, community, and elected leaders … have stood with Houston leaders," the union said. PJS has "spent huge sums of money in a court case that seeks to discourage working people."